There is a delicate difference between sacrifice and surrender. Elgin Baylor understood the difference. Elgin made many sacrifices, but he never surrendered. He was a man that understood when it was time to walk through the fire and when it was not.
The first Los Angeles Lakers legend was a military man. From 1961-1962, he served on active duty — at the same time he was competing as a professional basketball player.
At the time, the Army was looking to draft celebrities and big-name professional athletes. Elvis Presley enlisted and upheld his patriotic duty, Elgin Baylor did too.
On the day he sat in the recruiting office and filled out his paperwork, Elgin recorded in his book Hang Time how his head was “swimming with doubt.” Although the 1959 NBA Rookie of the Year earned All-Star honors in his first professional stint (10 more times after that) and was deemed the saving grace of the Minneapolis Lakers, he still didn’t believe he could have the same effect Elvis Presley had.
At one inch shorter than the maximum height limit for the military, Elgin was also color-blind — different shades of green, brown and khaki looked the same to him. It didn’t matter, the US Army still wanted him.
He wanted to fulfill the obligation to his country and see through the commitment to his sport, so he did both. He enlisted in the Army Reserve, which was a longer duration but a more flexible one — six years of summer assignments, six weeks of basic training starting immediately, and then six months of active duty at a base in the US, at some point in time.
Week one of his six weeks of basic training at Fort Sam Houston began at 5:00 am with a deafening horn blaring through the recruits’ quarters. After making their beds, and getting dressed, the trainees formed a line, standing at attention, waiting for inspection. There was just one problem, everyone had a uniform except for Elgin.
Baylor explained that he was doing everything he could to not draw attention to himself, to blend in as the tallest reserve on the base, and not stand out. He said the task was “nearly impossible,” but not because of his height, because he was wearing “street clothes.”
He recalls the drill sergeant hastily walking through the door of their barracks, and as he started observing the soldiers, he stopped intensely, eyes transfixed on Elgin. He demanded to know why he was not wearing his uniform.
“You missed receiving your requisition? Where were you? Were you too late?”
“No, sir, I was too tall,” Elgin replied.
Then the sergeant looked over at Elgin’s bed — Elgin’s two beds. An army cot was only big enough for a person 6’2” or shorter. Elgin was 6’5” and so his feet dangled off the edge and skimmed the floor. Elgin slid two cots together.
That summer, the Lakers had training camp in San Antonio so EB could practice with his teammates in anticipation of the 1959-60 season.
Elgin didn’t receive a properly sized uniform until the day before basic training ended. So as basic training concluded and basketball season began, Private Baylor transitioned from one uniform to another as an official military medic.
The season started on October 18, 1959. After losing to the Boston Celtics in four games the previous season and a summer of basic training in Texas, Elgin was provoked to play with endless hunger. And Elgin refused to lose to the Celtics again. Before their first encounter with the team that season, he declared, “I don’t care what it takes.” He declared even though they hadn’t beaten Boston in two years.
Not only had he led the Lakers to beat the Celtics handily, but he also surpassed “Jumping Joe” Fulks’ 10-year-standing NBA record for most points in a game with 64.
The following season, Elgin endured both a near-death experience as he and his fellow teammates survived a plane crash, and an entire team franchise move to Southern California, to which the Lakers’ owner at the time, Bob Short, told Elgin how he is the “the centerpiece” to the move, that he is “the franchise,” upon their journey.
After this series of events, Elgin was ready to take the summer to relax and recuperate before the 1961-62 season. But the United States Army had other plans and he was called for active duty.
The first Black team captain in the NBA was stationed at Fort Lewis Army Base outside Tacoma, Washington. His barracks were complete with a king-size cot, but if you can believe it, he was again without a uniform.
That summer, the world watched as East Germany linked with Russia to build the Berlin Wall between itself and the US’ ally, West Germany. The Berlin Crisis was one of the last major political incidents of the Cold War but was still all the more concerning as the US Army prepared their defense by calling up thousands of reservists — including the Los Angeles Lakers starting small forward.
Elgin was granted a postponement and didn’t have to report for duty until January 2, 1962. With 38 regular-season games left, the pro became a “weekend warrior” and modestly flew coach to arenas around the country. Elgin played six games while stationed at Fort Lewis, the Lakers won every one. He often went a month or so without touching a basketball, but when he stepped on the court he went lights out.
During his time as a weekend warrior, Elgin averaged 39 points and 19 rebounds a game. And he led his team to 37-11 in the 48 games he played. He scored over 1,800 points that season. No. 22 banked in what is recognized as the number one shot at the 1962 All-Star Game with a no-looker over Willie Naulls and Wilt Chamberlain’s heads.
After missing 32 games, heading into the postseason, the Army issued Elgin extended leave. During that time, Elgin and the Lakers beat the Detroit Pistons in the Western Division Finals and went on to face the Celtics in yet another Boston-LA showdown.
In a Game 5 win of the Finals, Elgin brought the Boston Garden to their feet after the contest — an unheard-of act. But what else could they do? After the weekend warrior set a new NBA record for points in a Finals game with 61 — a record that still stands today. The C’s eventually took the title in an overtime Game 7 win, behind 40 rebounds from Bill Russell.
Later that year, President John F. Kennedy signed a political cartoon featuring Celtics players and Coach Red Auerbach complaining about Baylor being granted weekend leave to play games. JFK himself sent the cartoon, framed and personalized to Baylor.
Yes, if you ask anyone from presidents to players, Elgin Baylor lived by an authentic code. President Lyndon B. Johnson invited Elgin and his wife to a state dinner with the prime minister of Thailand. Then in 1969, President Ronald Reagan (the Governor of California at the time) penned a letter of congratulations to the Lakers on Elgin Baylor Night.
Bill Russell said of his opponent and friend, “He did what we call hang time, he looked like he stayed in the air forever.” And Kobe Bryant affirmed that Elgin, “had a great first step, he had one of the best rocker steps I had ever seen.”
He was a pragmatic man navigating a multi-faceted life — always with a style all his own and a mean left hook-shot. “Athletes don’t plan. We don’t strategize. We do the opposite: we shut our minds off. We act on instinct,” he said. But instincts alone cannot be how the vet served his country as he established himself as an NBA superstar. It was his ardor, prowess, and allegiance — just to name a few.
At 86, the 14-year Laker passed away on March 22, 2021. The Hall of Famer brought the game of basketball to new heights — and let it hang there. But more than that, it is the honor he maintained in his life, sport, and service for which he will be remembered.